Q&A with H&B’s Steve Parkins

Q&A with H&B’s Steve Parkins

H&B Group is now headed by Steve Parkins, a man with a strong background in the nationals. PBM talks to Steve about what he can bring to — and is learning from — the independent sector.

The H&B Group now boasts a turnover nudging £1 billion, brokering deals for nearly eighty merchants across the UK which range in size from £5 million to in excess of £150 million. Those merchants boast a combined total of around 215 branches — stretching from Cornwall to the north of Scotland — and benefit from over 400 of “the best deals in the industry”.

Put simply, the buying group is no small operation — although the business is efficiently run with only a small headcount from its offices in Milton Keynes — but instead one with a 25+ year history and an incredibly loyal merchant membership.

Since April last year, it has been headed up by MD Steve Parkins. With a long and illustrious track record with the national merchant chains — a fact that may have raised a few eyebrows when he was appointed at H&B — it is perhaps less well known that his career was firmly established in the independent sector, starting out as buying office assistant at G. A. Day, a six-branch operation headquartered in his native Portsmouth.

“I started out at Day as an assistant in the buying office in 1983,” remembers Steve, “but that didn’t mean I was desk-bound. I got a good grounding in the way the whole business ran including helping out in the yard and on the trade counter, wherever I was needed.”

The independent firm gave him the opportunity to complete his HNC in Business and Finance, helping him launch the next stage of his career, and his first foray into the nationals arena was at the 62-branch Hall & Co as a divisional buyer, based in Redhill. After four years it was acquired by Wolseley and, recognising Steve as rising star, interviewed him for a position at its Kettering HQ.

A move to Jewson as Category Buying Manager followed in 2000, of which he said: “I spent twelve years at Saint-Gobain, eventually becoming Procurement Director across all the UK brands and absolutely loved it there. It was a great company to work for and a privilege to help grow and develop the procurement function within it.”

In 2012, he joined Grafton as Procurement Director. “I headed up the team tasked with coalescing the group’s buying across the UK and Ireland, something that had never been done before and I think, as a buying board, we delivered real added value across Grafton.”

A final plc appointment before H&B was with CRH, where Steve held the position of European Procurement Director. Based in Amsterdam, he was responsible for the development of the function in six countries across Europe, however an initial approach from H&B came in early 2018.

“To be honest, I only really knew H&B by name and because Days used to be a buying group member back in the day, so I knew the business model,” he admits. “I had no real idea of the scale of the operation or the culture and quality of the membership.”

With his new role in the independent sector, will his background see H&B become, for example, more ‘corporate’ now that an ex-nationals man is at the helm?

“H&B is, first and foremost, a buying group. We will remain agile and continue to make commercially astute decisions that optimise value for our members. But if corporate means professional, with proven processes, and a results-driven ethos, then yes,” Steve argues. “If corporate means slow, red tape-bound and bureaucratic, then that’s a no.

“We will certainly be retaining the solid core values that our members appreciate — like integrity, agility and entrepreneurship — but we will also be adding a strong layer of planning, robust processes and strategic development.

“H&B prides itself on being very flexible — our members run agile businesses, and they expect their buying group to be the same. The members certainly don’t ‘sugar coat’ things; they tell it to you just like it is and that frank, open feedback is really important.

“I am looking to blend this openness with a stronger strategic focus. We want to remain flexible and innovative and to implement decisions quickly, but I want that to be within the framework of a strong long-term strategy for the business.”

One of Steve’s key objectives for the future is to grow the membership benefits beyond just great deals. “Buying better is and remains at the very heart of what we do,” he says. “But I want to look at ways we can leverage our tremendous collective power to the advantage of the company’s members. There is so much more we can do with a well-executed strategic plan.”

That plan may include selling initiatives, online schemes, and better partnerships with suppliers, as well as increased resources to make membership even more profitable for members.

“Standing still is simply not an option,” says Steve. “So you can expect to see H&B getting bigger and better in the coming years. By continuing to offer better availability, service and, in many cases, prices, independents have proved time and time again that they can more than match the nationals, especially when the market is volatile, because they can move and flex their businesses much more effectively and efficiently.

“A focused strategic plan, partnered with the agility and the shrewd business acumen of the independent sector means H&B will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.”

For more information visit www.handbgroup.com

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